Reflections on The Strange Phenomenon, how I gunned the CFMT, letter personification in advertising and clue to a possible cure for some cases of prosopagnosia after reading an old journal paper

(this article added to on August 10th 2011)

I thought that I’d read pretty much everything that there was available to read  about face recognition testing, but I had overlooked the 2006 journal paper by Duchaine and Nakayama published in the journal Neuropsychologia which validated the Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT). This short paper has been well worth a look. I’ve found quite a few things in this paper that have provoked much thought and added to my understanding of The Strange Phenomenon, including some most fascinating information about one of the study subjects, a male who was supposedly a prosopagnosic but who employed an interesting trick that enabled him to get a score in the normal range in the CFMT. The Strange Phenomenon is a type of synesthesia that involves face recognition which I have experienced in the past. I have fully described this phenomenon in the first posting in this blog “A Most Peculiar Experience”.

In the introduction to the paper there is a reminder of why the CFMT is such a good test of an ability as it is used in everyday life, and a reminder of the processes that give rise to face recognition. “Because the test will measure face memory, performance on the test will depend on both perceptual mechanisms and memory.” “However, face memory, not face perception, is the ability that determines our success in identity recognition in everyday life, and so it is especially important to measure it.” So, memory is an essential element of this ability. Given that there is a general belief that synaesthesia is somehow linked with superior memory, we perhaps should not be surprised to find a connection between synaesthesia and superior face memory ability, as is measured in with CFMT. The fact that memory is an element of face recognition perhaps explains the clunky, abrupt nature of The Strange Phenomenon. Like other types of synaesthesia, there is a definite moment when it “kicks in”, and you can never be sure exactly when it will “kick in” till it does, even though one knows what conditions trigger it. Memory works like this too. Memories can be retrieved in an unpredictable, triggered, abrupt and uncontrollable or hard-to-control process. Similarities between some types of synaesthesia, memory and The Strange Phenomenon are obvious. I believe that these are all “threshold phenomena”.

On page 582 I’ve discovered a detail which was discovered in the study that is written up in this paper which possibly helps to explain one of the requisite characteristics of the trigger of The Strange Phenomenon. The Strange Phenomenon violates what is possibly a universal feature of face recognition that is found in prosopagnosics, normal controls viewing upright faces and also normal controls viewing inverted faces. This feature is a slightly better performance at identifying faces from front views compared to side views. In contrast, The Strange Phenomenon generally requires a side view (from around a 45 degree angle) as the trigger for the automatic recognition of the apparent facial similarity between John* and Jean*. I take this as evidence pointing towards probable reasons why The Strange Phenomenon requires a side view – that it is the only view in which the two adults of different genders, John and Jean, look similar, and/or that a side view is the only view that gives an integrated visual understanding of John’s, (and maybe Jean’s), distinctive flat face. It appears a general superiority of a 45 degree view of faces for the purpose of recognition is not the reason why The Strange Phenomenon requires a view from this angle. I find this surprising, but I can still think of a possible reason why a full-face view is best for face recognition – because it is the view that gives the greatest “feel” of social interaction, and a “feeling” of social interaction enhances or gives rise to face recognition. Which brings me to the most interesting find in this paper…..

Reading through the paper one gets the impression that the CFMT is a better test of real-life face recognition ability than the older tests that it is compared to. In general the CFMT appears to prevent prosopagnosics from getting a score that falsely indicates normal ability by using strategies that don’t involve actual face recognition, but out of the eight prosopagnosics in the study there is still the problem that two prosopagnosics, (given the anonymous names of F41 and M57 in this study, the letter denoting gender and the number denoting age at time of testing) scored within two standard deviations of the mean, which is judged to be within the normal range. F41’s score was pretty low, but prosopagnosic M57’s score really required an explanation because it was only just below the mean score for the normal control subjects. How did M57 do it? M57 was asked. His cool trick was a deliberate strategy, but not really a cheat. He explained that he “…intentionally attempted to “lust” after the faces rather than simply memorize them.” This is rather amusing considering that M57 is a male and all of the faces in the CFMT are of men’s faces. This strategy wasn’t just some wild idea that M57 dreamed up – he was a veteran of face recognition testing, and M57 was testing a theory that he had formulated about his own performance in such tests. His theory is apparently supported by evidence that attractive faces are better remembered than unattractive faces. M57’s deliberate attempts to add emotional content to the plain colourless pictures of faces during the encoding/memorizing of these images appears to have been very effective. I guess in employing this strategy he was recruiting parts of the brain to the task that wouldn’t have otherwise been drawn into the job of memorizing faces. Was M57 using a simple type of emotional arousal to boost the connectivity of his brain during this testing? Did this temporary enhancement of brain connectivity bridge his impoverished connections between brain regions that normally make face recognition difficult for him by isolating the various parts of the brain that need to work together during successful face recognition? This theory sounds like the opposite of synaesthesia, and there is evidence that many agnosias, including some but not all cases of prosopagnosia, are caused by under-connected brains. It is a well-accepted observation that there is an association between emotion and synaesthesia. Music is an experience that appears to be a particularly powerful trigger for both emotions and synaesthesia. According to what I’ve read there appears to be evidence that there are generally two different types of problem that give rise to prosopagnosia – some prosopagnosics simply have damage to a specific part of the brain that “does” face recognition (the fusiform face area I guess), while for possibly most prosopagnosics the problem lies in poor connections between different parts of the brain, resulting in faces being recognized unconsciously, with clues that can be detected by researchers, but the person is not conscious of the recognition because their under-connected brain fails to relay this information to the parts of the brain that “do” conscious thought.

When I read about M57’s effective strategy I was fascinated because it seems to have a lot in common with my own naturally-employed strategy for success in the CFMT, in which I have gotten perfect scores more than once. When I did the CFMT test I would very quickly imagine a character or personality based on the appearance of the face when I encoded the face, dreaming up a different character for each face. I would wildly interpret individual features of the face, and the overall mood and character of the face. Plumpness in the cheeks interpreted as evidence of an impulsive character. Large eyes with an anxious-looking mouth was taken as evidence of a sensitive and intellectual personality. I knew this was fanciful, but it worked very effectively. Using this personification strategy made it easy to tell the difference between faces that I had previously seen and newly-presented faces, because I felt that I “knew” some of the people pictured while others were still strangers to me. There is a simple explanation of why the use of personification in the encoding the memories of faces/personalities is such an easy and natural process for me. Ordinal linguistic personification (OLP) is one of the many different types of synaesthesia that I have. OLP is a type of synaesthesia in which individual items in ordered sequences such as letters, numbers or days of the week are associated with individual personalities. Like grapheme->colour synaesthesia it has its origins in early childhood and the associations are pretty much fixed for life.

Perhaps you are thinking that ordinal linguistic personification sounds like pretty crazy stuff that seems so irrational that it surely couldn’t be useful and couldn’t be associated with useful abilities. I would argue that a brain that can “do” OLP is a brain that is richly connected to cultural, personal and linguistic associations by virtue of the fact that it is physically very inter-connected. It is possibly a brain that has a natural talent for learning languages and learning to read (two talents that are found in my family). Do you believe that the letters of the alphabet are nothing more than graphemes (basic written language symbols) that are associated with phonemes (a most basic unit of sound in a language)? Is your thinking really as limited as that? The letters of the alphabet and other graphemes such as numbers, Oriental characters and punctuation marks can have many types of properties. They clearly have shapes and sounds. In some minds they can also have colours, genders, ages, personalities and physical orientations (facing left, right or to the front). Some graphemes resemble faces, and many of them look like stick figures in different poses, poses which can be highly expressive of emotion or personality. Can’t you see the letter E’s big smile as he faces toward the right? Don’t you think the letters K and Y look so happy waving their arms about? The letter H is a bit of a frump with her square body and legs that are rather far apart, wouldn’t you say? I’ve always thought Mr S was a bit of a snake, while letter M and number 1 stand straight and resolute. Have you ever seen the 1940s cult classic movie The Curse of the Cat People? It isn’t as bad as the title suggests, in fact it could be described as a perceptive exploration of hidden and forgotten aspects of an introverted childhood, a world of imaginary friends and playing among nature and personification synaesthesia. When the ghostly Irena teaches young Amy how to write the numbers 1 and 2, she personifies them by making reference to the resemblance of the graphemes’ shapes to human figures “One is like a tall princess. A princess? Of course! And two is the prince who kneels before her on one knee. Yes? Yes! The prince! That’s right. This is more fun than just numbers. Of course!” (Irena hugs Amy). Personification is a funny little brain trick that makes learning how to write and recognize graphemes more fun, and it also appears to be an aid to learning how to recognize faces.

Letters of the alphabet can have associations with the names of people who have a first name that begins with that letter. In my own ordinal linguistic personification all of the letters that are the first letter of a close family member’s name have genders and personalities that are the same or similar to the family member. The first letter of my own name is pretty much a reflection of my own (possibly inaccurate) self-concept when I was a young girl. Letters of the alphabet can also have associations with words that start with that letter, and the phonemes that are linked with graphemes can have sound symbolism. In my OLP the letter M is a motherly type of personality. She is a “Mum’s lipstick” type of colour. I don’t think there is yet any scientific consensus as to why the word for “mother” has a “ma” or “mam” sound  in so many different languages, but sound symbolism is often offered as an explanation. A recent article about sound symbolism in language in New Scientist magazine explicitly linked sound symbolism with synaesthesia and the “bouba-kiki effect”. Sound symbolism in language is possibly a universal and innate feature of human psychology. Research indicates that sound symbolism patterns are recognised by young children and adults across cultures, but more research needs to be done to confirm this. I do not think it is a stretch to propose that there is a connection between my mother-personality OLP synaesthesia for the letter M and a universal sound symbolism in language that is somehow based on synaesthesia.

In my mind the letters K, R and Y all have vital, positive, outgoing, young adult, powerful personifications (two male and one female) and have grapheme->colour associations with bright colours. I believe this is because these letters have physical shapes that resemble human stick figures in dynamic poses, with K and R standing with legs apart and K with her arms raised, as are the letter Y’s arms. Does the letter R have one hand on one hip? He certainly has tickets on himself, don’t you think? In my mind the letter Y is a man in his prime of life who has a cheerful personality and is associated with an obnoxiously bright yellow colour. I find it easy to imagine him as an Indian Bhangra dancer with his arms joyously raised to the skies, leaping about in a manful manner. Contrast these dynamic letters with the letter C. It seems to be no coincidence that the words “curled” and “caring” both start with letter C, with all of the associated connotations of passivity, gentleness and introversion. In my mind the letter C is a quiet, caring and young female personality and the associated colour is a pale mauvey-pink.

Do you still believe that letters are nothing more than graphemes which are associated with phonemes? There has got to be something seriously wrong with your brain if you do! Tell me, which letters out of C, K, R and Y would you consider hiring to help you to move house, if they were people? I’d only hire the letter C to help pack fragile items and comfort the pets, and I’d be wary of the letter Y being distracted by chatter and dancing and not getting on with the work. I believe it is no coincidence that the letter R is the only letter that I have seen personified in an advertising logo for a removalist company’s logo (see links below). I have also seen some most dynamic letters K and Y personified in advertising items such as a movie poster and a company logo. Ordinal-linguistic personification synaesthesia cannot be dismissed as crazy stuff. I believe all capable advertising professionals must have a good working understanding of personification and other types of synaesthesia, either conscious or unconscious, as explicit synaesthetes or as “normal people” with well-connected minds and well-developed cultural-sensory sensitivities. I also believe that personification is the trick that was used by myself (a mutliple synaesthete who naturally personifies letters)  and possibly also by the male prosopagnosic study subject M57 to enhance our performances in the CFMT to unexpected levels (M57 into the normal range and me into the super-recognizer range). I believe such personification recruits parts of the brain that are normally used for social functioning to the simple task of face recognition, and this somehow enhances performance.

I believe that another personality-related type of synaesthesia can give some clues about solving the mystery of The Strange Phenomenon. I’ve recently been reading some personal first-hand accounts of coloured personality synaesthesias – synaesthesia experiences which can look like coloured “auras” around people’s faces or bodies. I have also read about one very interesting case of coloured facial expression synaesthesia in chapter three of the book The Tell-Tale Brain by V. S. Ramachandran. I find this stuff most interesting for many reasons. We are reminded that the trigger or stimuli or “inducer” in this type of synaesthesia does not fit the usual stereotypes of synaesthesia, because the trigger is not simple and is not purely sensory, but is highly psychological and highly social and highly personal. Clearly non-sensory parts of the brain are involved. The trigger is the expressed personality of another person, or to be completely correct, the synaesthete’s perception of the personality of another person. First-hand accounts of coloured personality synaesthesia make it clear that it is the synaesthete’s beliefs about the personalities of others that are the triggers. For example, some coloured personality synaesthetes report that they experience simple correspondences between personality traits and single colours in people that they don’t know very well, but for people whom they know very well no colours are experienced. It has been theorized that the lack of colouration of personalities that are well known is the result of over-complexity or too much knowledge of a person’s personality. When we first meet a person, only the most dominant or obvious personality traits might be clearly perceived, while the many-faceted personality of a person who is well-known might look like a mess of colours if all the personality traits have a colour, or perhaps the colours might cancel each other out to nothing. What does this have to do with The Strange Phenomenon? I think this stuff serves as a reminder that there could be more to this phenomenon than simple visual (face) processing and memory with synaesthesia connections, in the trigger or in the experience triggered. I’m sure that the fusiform face area is involved in this phenomenon, but I can only guess what other parts of my brain might be involved with this trick. Coloured personality synaesthesia reminds us that things as complex and as social as personality traits and perceptions of personality traits can be involved with synaesthesia. In The Strange Phenomenon it most certainly felt to me as though the experience triggered was not just a picture of Jean’s face, but was a memory of Jean’s embodied and voiced personality. I still do not understand why this near-stranger, this face-in-the-crowd should be so memorable to me. I have many theories, but this mystery is unlikely to ever be solved. Coloured personality synaesthesia is also a reminder of how subjective synaesthesia can be. Whether or not another person is coloured can depend on how well known they are to the synaesthete. The synaesthete’s social understanding can clearly have a big influence upon this type of synaesthesia. It is perfectly possible that my perceptions of the personalities involved in The Strange Phenomenon could play a major part in this phenomenon. Once again, I have theories about this, but no real understanding. Perhaps this is what is so interesting about Jean. There is nothing more fascinating than a mystery.

* not their real names


Duchaine, Brad & Nakayama, Ken The Cambridge Face Memory Test: Results for neurologically intact individuals and an investigation of its validity using inverted face stimuli and prosopagnosic participants. Neuropsychologia 44 (2006) 576–585.

Ramachandran, V. S. The tell-tale brain: unlocking the mystery of human nature. William Heinemann, 2011.

Robson, David Kiki or bouba? In search of language’s missing link. New Scientist. Issue 2821 19 July 2011.

Letter personification links:

Wikipedia contributors Ordinal linguistic personification. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Web page showing the logo for the Kambo’s company which includes a physically dynamic personification of the letter K:

Web page showing the logo for the Removal Man company which includes a physically dynamic personification of the letter R:

Web page showing a poster for a movie with a title that starts with the letter Y which includes a physically dynamic and joyful pose of a man in the shape of the letter Y:

Web page showing a photo of a colourfully-dressed male Bhangra dancer in a typically joyful and physically dynamic letter Y pose:

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